A critique of techno-feudalism

Image: Cornelia Parker
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By EVGENY MOROZOV*

The seemingly long-awaited end of capitalism may just be the beginning of something far worse.

First the good news. The moratorium on imagining the end of capitalism, put forward in the 1990s by Fredric Jameson, has finally expired. The decades-long slump of the progressive imagination is over. Apparently, the task of envisioning systemic alternatives has become much easier now, as we can work with dystopian options – behold, the seemingly long-awaited end of capitalism could just be the beginning of something much worse.

Late capitalism is certainly bad enough, with its explosive cocktail of climate change, inequality, police brutality and the deadly pandemic. But having made dystopia big again, some on the left have quietly moved to revise Jameson's adage: today, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the continuation of capitalism as we know it.

The not-so-good news is that, in undertaking this speculative exercise in doomsday scenario planning, the left has a hard time differentiating itself from the right. In fact, the two ideological poles practically converged on a shared description of the new reality. For many, in both camps, the end of really existing capitalism no longer means the advent of a better day, be it democratic socialism, anarcho-syndicalism or “pure” classical liberalism. Instead, the emerging consensus is that the new regime is nothing less than a new breed of feudalism – an “ism” with very few respectable friends.

True, today's neofeudalism arrives with catchy slogans, elegant mobile apps, and even the promise of eternal virtual bliss in the borderless domain of Zuckerberg's metaverse. His vassals traded their medieval garb for stylish Brunello Cucinelli T-shirts and Golden Goose sneakers. Many supporters of the thesis of neofeudalism claim that its rise is concomitant with that of Silicon Valley. Thus, terms such as “techno-feudalism”, “digital feudalism” and “information feudalism” are often used. “Smart feudalism” has yet to gain much traction in the media, but it may not be far off.

On the right, the most vocal proponent of the “return to feudalism” thesis was the conservative theorist Joel Kotkin, who envisioned the power of “connected” techno-oligarchs in The Coming of Neo-Feudalism (2020). While Kotkin opted for “neo”, Glen Weyl and Eric Posner, younger thinkers of a more neoliberal nature, opted for the prefix “techno” in their much-discussed Radical Markets (2018). “Techno-feudalism”, they write, “it hinders personal development, just as ancient feudalism delayed the acquisition of education or investment in improving the land”.

For classical liberals, of course, capitalism, corroded by politics, is always on the verge of falling back into feudalism. However, some on the radical right see neofeudalism as a blueprint to be embraced politically. Under labels such as “neo-reaction” or “dark lighting”, many are close to billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Among them is neo-reactionary technologist and intellectual Curtis Yarvin, who hypothesized a neo-feudal search engine, which he affectionately called Feud-1, as early as 2010.

On the left, the list of people who flirted with “feudalist” concepts is long and growing: Yanis Varoufakis, Mariana Mazzucato, Jodi Dean, Robert Kuttner, Wolfgang Streeck, Michael Hudson and, ironically, even Robert Brenner (the main name of the Brenner Debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism). To their credit, none of them go so far as to claim that capitalism is completely extinct or that we are back in the Middle Ages.

The most careful of these, such as Brenner, suggest that features of the current capitalist system – prolonged stagnation, politically driven redistribution of wealth, overt consumption by elites combined with increasing impoverishment of the masses – resemble aspects of its feudal predecessor, even if it is capitalism that that governs everyday life. Yet despite all these warnings, many on the left have found calling Silicon Valley or Wall Street “feudal” to be simply irresistible, just as many pundits cannot resist calling Trump or Orbán “fascists.”

The actual connection to historical fascism or feudalism may be tenuous, but the wager is that there is enough shock value in this kind of proclamation that is primarily intended to rouse the soporific public into complacency. Also, it makes good memes. The hungry crowds on Reddit and Twitter love it: A YouTube video featuring a discussion of techno-feudalism by Varoufakis and Slavoj Žižek garnered over 300.000 views in just three weeks.

In the case of well-known figures like Varoufakis and Mazzucato, tantalizing their audience with invocations of feudal glamor can provide a media-friendly way to recycle arguments they've made before. In the case of Varoufakis, techno-feudalism seems to be primarily about the perverse macroeconomic effects of quantitative easing. For Mazzucato, “digital feudalism” refers to the unearned income generated by technology platforms. Neo-feudalism is often proposed as a way to bring conceptual clarity to the most advanced sectors of the digital economy. However, there, the brightest minds on the left are still very much in the dark.

Are Google and Amazon capitalists? They are rentiers, as Brett Christophers suggests in Rentier Capitalism? What about Uber? Is it just an intermediary, a service charging platform that has inserted itself between drivers and passengers? Or is it producing and selling a transportation service? These issues are not without consequences for the way we think about contemporary capitalism itself, strongly dominated by technology companies.

The idea that feudalism is making a comeback is also consistent with left-wing critics who condemn capitalism as extractivist. If today's capitalists are mere idle rentiers who contribute nothing to the production process, don't they deserve to be demoted to the status of feudal lords? This adoption of feudal imagery by figures in the media- and meme-friendly left intelligentsia shows no signs of stopping.

Ultimately, however, the popularity of feudal language is evidence of intellectual weakness rather than a sign of media savvy. It is as if the theoretical framework of the left could no longer make sense of capitalism without mobilizing the moral language of corruption and perversion.

In what follows, I delve into some salient debates about the distinguishing features that differentiate capitalism from earlier economic forms – and those that define politico-economic operations in the new digital economy – in the hope that a critique of techno-feudal reason might shed light on new light on the world we can still live in.

[...]

Currently, the only way to fit exploitation and expropriation into a single model is to argue that we need an expanded conception of capitalism itself – as Nancy Fraser has done, with some success. It remains to be seen whether Fraser's account, which is still being crafted, will succeed in addressing broader geopolitical and military considerations. But the general sense of the argument she develops seems correct.

While in the 1970s it might have been interesting to think about unfree labor, racial and gender domination, and the free use of public transport – as well as the unequal terms of trade that resulted from the center's acquisition of cheap goods produced in the periphery, Assuming all of this as external to exploitation-based capitalism, these days all of this has become more difficult. Such arguments have been increasingly challenged by some of the exceptional empirical work done by historians working on the themes of gender, climate, colonialism, consumption and slavery. Expropriation received more adequate treatment and this significantly complicated the analytical purity with which capital's laws of motion could be formulated.

Jason Moore – a student of Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi – may have reached a new consensus when he wrote that “Capitalism thrives when islands of commodity production and exchange can appropriate oceans formed by potentially cheap portions of nature – outside the circuit of capital, but essential for its operation”. This consideration, of course, is valid not only for “cheap portions of nature” – there are many other activities and processes that may be appropriate – as such “oceans” take up more space than Moore suggests.

A major concession that political Marxism would likely have to make is to abandon its conception of capitalism as a system marked by the functional separation of the economic and the political. It is certain that “economic necessity alone supplies the immediate compulsion which compels the worker to transfer surplus labor to the capitalist” and that this is in contrast to the fusion of the economic and the political which takes place under feudalism. There were certainly good reasons for pointing out that the advance of democracy stopped at the factory gates; these rights granted in the political arena did not necessarily eliminate despotism in the economic sphere.

Of course, many points in this alleged separation were false: as Ellen Meiksins Wood argued in her seminal article on the subject (The Separation of the Economic and Political in Capitalism), it was bourgeois economic theory that abstracted “the economy” from its social aspects and its political envelope. It was capitalism itself that created the wedge that displaced essentially political issues from the political arena to the economic sphere. An example of this is the power “to control production and appropriation, that is, the allocation of social work”. True socialist emancipation would also require a full awareness that the separation between these two spheres is quite artificial.

[...]

Marxists would do well to recognize that dispossession and dispossession have been constitutive of accumulation throughout history. Perhaps the “luxury” of employing only the economic means of extracting value in the “properly” capitalist core has always been possible due to the extensive use of extra-economic means of extracting value in the non-capitalist periphery.

Once this analytical leap is taken, we no longer need to worry about invocations of feudalism. Capitalism is moving in the same direction as ever, leveraging whatever resources it can muster – and, in that respect, the cheaper the better.

In that sense, Braudel's old description of capitalism as "infinitely adaptable" is not the worst perspective to adopt. But he doesn't always continually adapt; when he does, however, it is not certain that redistributive tendencies towards the top of the pyramid will overcome those concerning production. It may be that this is exactly how it is with the digital economy today. This, of course, is no reason to believe that techno-capitalism is in any way a nicer, cozier, more progressive regime than techno-feudalism. However, by invoking the latter in vain, we run the risk of whitewashing the reputation of the former.

*Evgeny Morozov is a writer and journalist. Author, among other books, of Big Tech: The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics (Ubu).

Translation: Eleutério Prado.

Excerpts selected by the translator of the article Critique of Techno-feudal reason originally published on New Left Review.

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